Test Drive: TASCAM DM-24 Digital Mixing Console

LITTLE BIG MIXER

Considering how much is packed into the chassis, the DM-24 has a relatively small footprint, measuring about 23 inches wide and 26 inches deep. The analog inputs and outputs are located at the top of the front panel. This is a good news/bad news story, in that it can make the console area look sloppy, but it may help eliminate the need for a patchbay. But with all of the digital and control inputs on the DM-24’s rear panel, there isn’t space for the analog connections back there.

The DM-24 gives you sixteen channels of analog input with an XLR mic input, a balanced TRS line input, and a TRS insert point on each channel. There are no mic/line switches, and Tascam warns against using both the mic and the line inputs simultaneously on the same channel. That’s too bad, as it may force you to do more patching than you might otherwise, especially if your editor connects to the mixer via analog lines. The best way to avoid re-patching is to either connect your editor digitally via the rear panel, or to pick up one or two of the optional eight-channel analog input modules described later.

Four assignable sends and four assignable returns can be configured either as channel inserts or as aux sends and returns. When used as auxes, the returns can be assigned to inputs or directly to the stereo buss. The main mixer outputs are carried on balanced XLR jacks accompanied by 1/4-inch TRS insert jacks. Control-room monitoring is on 1/4-inch TRS jacks, and studio monitor outputs are on RCA jacks. Two stereo headphone jacks are provided, a nice touch for those times when one set of phones isn’t enough.

DM-24 rear

The rear panel’s digital and control connections include 24 channels of TDIF and 8 channels of ADAT Lightpipe I/O, as well as 2 switchable input and output stages that accept either AES/EBU from XLR connectors or S/PDIF from RCA jacks. Real-time sampling-rate conversion is available on both inputs. Digital word clock in and out is on BNC connectors, with switchable termination. There’s also an RCA jack for SMPTE in and three MIDI ports.

There are plenty of control connections provided on the back, including a 15-pin DTRS remote control jack for use with Tascam’s DA-series digital multitrack recorders, as well as a 9-pin RS-422 and a 9-pin GPI connector for control of external devices. The GPI’s eight ports can be configured as high-to-low or low-to-high, or as momentary low or high. There are also connections for the optional meter bridge and a 1/4-inch external footswitch jack.

The rear panel contains two slots for option cards, including the IFAD/DM ($249), with eight channels of ADAT Lightpipe and an ADAT sync connector. Also available are the IFAE/DM ($299), with eight AES/EBU I/O channels; the IF-AN/DM ($499), for eight additional channels of analog I/O; and the IF-CS/DM ($299), which allows two mixers to be cascaded.

Also optional is the MU-24 ($949) meter bridge. Although the channel metering in the DM-24’s onboard LCD display is adequate, it’s so small that the meter bridge is a necessity. Unfortunately the meter bridge’s meters don’t line up directly above the corresponding channel strips, so you’ll have to check the labels to be certain what’s what. Master stereo metering is courtesy of a 12-LED ladder display.

FADERS AND KNOBS AND BUTTONS, OH MY!

The sixteen channel strips each come equipped with 100mm moving faders. In addition to being quick, the touch-sensitive silver faders are both cool looking and mercifully quiet. Above each fader is an LED that indicates automation status or overload level (with programmable source and OL level), and Mute, Select, and Record Enable buttons (these work only when the DM-24 is used for machine control). Pressing the latching Solo button over the master fader turns the channel mute buttons into channel solo buttons.

Four stepped, infinite rotary encoders above the faders let you adjust EQ or aux send parameters for the selected channel. Around each encoder is a ring of LEDs that indicate the parameter’s value. Sometimes an encoder uses multiple LEDs — the Q pot uses a spread of LEDs to give a visual indication of narrow vs. wide bandwidth. Once you become accustomed to the “language” of the LEDs, you’ll be able to gather a great deal of information in a single glance.

One of the problems with some digital mixers is that the increments provided by each step of a rotary control is too coarse. This is a particular problem with EQ parameters, where you may not be able to  access a particular frequency due to the large interval between steps of the knob. The DM-24 reduces this problem by giving you a button labeled 2ND F that provides a finer level of control. For example, the EQ gain control normally steps in increments of 1.5dB, but if you press the 2ND F button then the steps become 0.5dB.

Each of the DM-24’s 32 channels features four bands of fully parametric EQ and a compressor, and the first 16 channels have an expander/gate. Six aux buses feed either the internal effects or four assignable sends, and the eight mix buses feed the TDIF, ADAT, or option slot outputs. You can insert three stereo compressors into any three pairs of aux, mix, or master L/R buses.

Screen navigation is accomplished with a set of four soft knobs (called Pods) and soft keys, via cursor keys or the jog wheel, and a variety of specialized controls. You navigate through the main display using either the four arrow keys to the right of the Pods or the wheel to the right of the arrow keys. In most cases, the arrow keys and wheel step through parameters on the page, and you adjust their values with the Pods. The Screen Mode buttons, located to the right of the display, give you access to a function set that includes EQ, dynamics, effects, and I/O mapping. Those buttons also serve for numeric entry. To the right of the Screen Mode section are four keys for creating, editing, and accessing the DM-24’s ten locate points.

The far-right top panel contains level knobs for solo, monitoring, and talkback. You may need an external switcher if you want to switch between sets of monitor speakers, as there’s only one set of Control Room outputs, but that’s not unusual on a mixer at this price range.

To the left of the display are dedicated sampling rate and external clock LEDs. The channel-assign buttons direct the channel’s output to the eight mix busses or to the master stereo out in odd/even pairs, and a Direct button routes the signal to outputs on an option card or TDIF connector.

THE LIBRARY

A DM-24 Library is a snapshot of commonly used parameters such as EQ or effects settings and channel routings. Located to the left of the display, the Library button shows you the various Library types sequentially each time you press the button. Once a Library type is displayed, the soft keys provide a fast way to grab Presets or User settings, and these are absolutely essential when you’re first starting out with the board.

Tascam recently added four snapshots to the default Library. Unfortunately the first one is called “48 Channel Mixing” and it had me buffooned for a while, as I was simply trying to monitor a couple of microphones plugged into analog inputs 1 and 2 on the top panel. I finally realized that this snapshot assigned the three 8-channel TDIF inputs to mixer channels 1 through 24, and effects and AES to the next eight. Accessing the I/O page, I saw that I needed to change the routing so that the mic/line inputs would feed mixer channels 1 and 2. I later found snapshot 003, called “Recording 1-16” that automatically routed things properly for recording tracks.

The Module button to the left of the screen displays all the parameters for the currently selected channel. EQ, dynamics, aux sends, assignments, and configuration are all shown and can be edited. However, pressing a channel’s Select button does not automatically bring up the Module screen for that channel — you have to specifically press the Module button or hold the Select button down for about three seconds.

BANKS AND LAYERS

Like many smaller digital mixers, the DM-24 uses bank switching to make sixteen faders and channel buttons work for all of the mixer’s channels. The three layers are 1 through 16, 17 through 32, and Master, which includes both bus and aux masters. This is another area where new users can get confused, and despite the fact that I’ve owned a digital board for five years, the layer design occasionally bit me as well on this board. But the bank buttons are large and well lit, and you’ll get used to it. Trust me.

The layer-select buttons and the transport are conveniently located close to the front of the board, making it easy to anchor your arm on the armrest and work ‘em. Above those is a large blank area where I would have liked to see the scrub wheel, arrow buttons, and Enter key. Because those frequently used controls are located so high on the panel, occasionally I pressed the machine-control buttons under my forearm when I went for the cursor buttons. A Transport Lock feature deals with this by temporarily locking out the transport controls.

The DM-24’s machine-control capabilities are comprehensive. In addition to basic transport controls, various buttons control recorder-input monitoring, auto-punching, and automation modes. Some of these will work only with certain recorders — they’re designed to work most completely with Tascam’s entire DA-series of multitrack tape transports and the MX-2424 hard-disk recorder. But recent DM-24 software includes a HUI mode for controlling editors including Pro Tools, Nuendo, Digital Performer, and any other editors that conform to the Mackie HUI standard for control.

I was able to control Pro Tools’ transport, faders, mutes, mono pans, and track enables solely from the DM-24’s front panel, and that was sweet. Not all functions in Pro Tools are supported, however. In particular, the pan knobs only worked the left channel of a stereo track, and the Jog wheel didn’t function at all in Pro Tools. Nevertheless, I produced several promos using the DM-24 in this fashion, and for basic tracking and mixing control it was quick and responsive.

START YER EFFECTS ENGINES

There are two dedicated internal effects channels and two processing engines. The first engine contains Tascam’s own general-purpose time-domain, dynamics and distortion algorithms. The second engine contains the TC Works reverb and Antares mic and speaker modeling algorithms, only one being usable at a time. Either engine can be allocated to either effects channel, or they can be connected in series (allowing phased or chorused reverbs, for example).

The two effects channels can be configured to operate either as conventional send/return loops, with inputs and outputs routed via any of the aux sends and channel returns, or as inserts to specific channels or mix busses. The processors can also be configured for mono or stereo inputs.

There are 99 TC Works reverbs, all very usable and covering a wide range of styles including ambience, box, room, chamber, hall, plate, drum/percussion, tunnel and special effects. A comprehensive range of program parameters can be edited, although the pre-programmed reverbs were quite good. One unusual parameter, is the ‘space editor’ — it alters the “room shape” between large and small cubes, a D-shape, a prism, or a T-shape. It’s a powerful parameter, and much more effective than the simple “early reflection” controls on other reverbs.

The Antares modeling algorithms feature 83 different microphone types and ten types of loudspeakers. When you insert one into an input channel or output buss, it certainly changes the sound, and you may like the results. But mic modeling can’t turn an SM-57 into a Neumann U-87. It’s an interesting effect, and not much more. To me the most useful parameter in the modeling effects is the Tube Saturation control, which can impart a bit of in-your-face to an otherwise thin VO track.

Tascam’s own general purpose effects — all 127 of them — run the gamut and include Chorus, Flange, Phase, Delay, Pitch-shift, Exciter, De-esser, Compressor and Distortion. They’re okay, if a bit run of the mill, but they complement the other effects nicely. The good news is that they’re included, they’re free, and they won’t put any load on your computer.

DOUBLE THE RATE

The DM-24 is capable of operating at 88.2 or 96 kHz sampling rates, but with restrictions. As with most digital recorders, high-sampling-rate mode halves the DM-24’s resources. For example, HR mode reduces the number of available channels from 32 to 16.

There are also limitations with HR inputs and outputs. The DM-24 supports HR mixing by using two ADAT cables in each direction (called ADAT S/MUX), going to and from an Alesis HD-24, a MOTU 2408 MKIII, or an RME interface card. You can also mix in HR over two sets of AES cables in each direction, to a number of Tascam recorders including the DA-98HR and MX-2424, and to other manufacturer’s recorders.

Hey, I know this is a radio book and nobody cares about high-sample-rate recording, right? But some of us do take in outside work for which this is an interesting capability. Who knows?

AUTOMATE ME

The DM-24 sports a full-featured automation system. The motorized, touch-sensitive faders make a very responsive interface for mixing and have a smooth feel. You can automate all of the standard channel functions — level, mute, EQ, dynamics, and aux sends — as well as snapshots and Libraries. However, you can’t dynamically automate the effects.

The DM-24 automation includes features usually found only in high-end systems, such as writing automation from where you stop to the end, and remaining in automation record even when time code is interrupted (which generally kicks automation systems out of record). Other useful features include a Rehearse mode and a time-out scheme for the Pods that makes them act more as if they were touch-sensitive.

WORKING OUT

In session I found that when recording eight or 16 tracks, the DM-24 was easy to use. Switching between layers for source and monitor applications was not exactly fast, but workable. When it came to 24-track use, I found the constant switching of layers along with keeping track of signals to be a little tricky.

If you are familiar with digital console conventions like channel selection and fader bank toggling, you will be up and running in no time. The main display screen is hardly large, but is easy to navigate, although many functions lie buried beneath layers of menus and key combinations.

Best of all, this console sounds good. The quality of the pre-amps is very good (substantially better than my current 02R, darn it), and the sound of the EQ and dynamics is better than most mid-priced digital boards I’ve heard. The overall sound of the DM-24 is very good indeed.

Tascam has a reputation for building products that are reliable and sound good, and this mixer does not disappoint. The DM-24 digital mixer has all the features of the other digital boards, plus something more — mature software and a low street price. The DM-24 first shipped nearly two years ago, and since then the software has undergone four major revisions, each of which added cool features and squashed bugs. The console’s list price is $2,995, but if you’re willing to do the shop and grind you can get it for just over two-thirds of that. In addition, Tascam is offering the meter bridge for free if you buy one before the end of the year. If you’re in the market for a digital board, it’s a good deal all around. Steve sez check it out.

The TASCAM DM-24 carries a retail price of $2,999, and the optional meter bridge is priced at $949. Additional 8-channel ADAT and TDIF cards are $249 each, and the AES card is $299, while the 8-channel analog card is priced at $499. For more information in the US, contact TASCAM at 323-726-0303. For more information worldwide, visit www.tascam.com and www.tascam contractor.com.

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